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Q: Would America Be Worse off without a U.S. Department of Energy?

By Pena, Federico; Tiahrt, Todd | Insight on the News, August 11, 1997 | Go to article overview

Q: Would America Be Worse off without a U.S. Department of Energy?


Pena, Federico, Tiahrt, Todd, Insight on the News


Yes: Cutting the power at Energy would be pennywise and pound-foolish.

The airbags that cushioned the Mars Pathfinder's descent to the Red Planet. The world's fastest supercomputers. Medical isotopes used to detect disease. Energy-efficient appliances and lighting. Solar panels. Wind turbines.

These and hundreds of other technologies that improve our quality of life and contribute to our economic prosperity are the result of pathbreaking research sponsored by the Department of Energy, or DOE. DOE's important missions in national security, environmental cleanup, energy end basic scientific research have led to more than 60 Nobel Prizes and more "R&D 100" awards than any other private or public organization.

Despite this record of accomplishment, some argue that DOE should be abolished. They usually base this view on misconceptions about DOE and how we operate. They also devise complicated plans to redistribute DOE's important work among other federal agencies, not recognizing that reorganizing doesn't save money and that other federal agencies are not suited to perform these vital national missions.

But this work is necessary and will not disappear even if DOE were to be abolished. Monitoring the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile must be continued. Efforts to clean former nuclear-weapon production sites cannot be abandoned. Energy technologies that promise to keep our economy strong and independent would not be developed. The agency that has sponsored the science and technology that has added so much to our standard of living should not be torn apart.

Our energy strategy affects not only our domestic economy, but the world economy as well. Enormous environmental impacts and huge global-trading opportunities all require a strong and effective Department of Energy. No one has demonstrated that abolishing DOE would result in cost savings or anything less than bureaucratic chaos. President Reagan in 1980 wanted to abolish DOE to save money but finally had to admit that no budgetary savings could be found. Since that time, the issue has been studied to death and no responsible critic has been able to find realistic cost savings that would come from dismantling DOE.

So the question is whether DOE's vital work in defense, environmental cleanup and energy research should stay under one roof. No one has come up with a better way to organize these important national missions.

Start with our defense work. Civilian control of nuclear weapons is a cornerstone of our national-security strategy, but some have said this work could be sent to the Department of Defense. This idea firmly was rejected by former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who wrote Congress in 1995 that "[t]his dual-agency approach has served the nation well by creating institutional checks and balances that are vital for meeting the performance, safety and reliability requirements of the nuclear arsenal." In fact, no country with nuclear weapons places control of those weapons within a defense ministry.

It has been suggested that our environmental cleanup efforts at former nuclear-weapon production sites should be transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, or the Defense Department. Aside from the fact that this would put EPA into the uncomfortable position of regulating itself, any agency taking over these responsibilities would be given a daunting task they are unprepared to undertake. Communities that depend upon DOE to accelerate the cleanup of their neighborhoods would be ill-served by shifting this important responsibility to a new agency.

Transferring our basic scientific research and energy research elsewhere would re-create the chaos experienced prior to DOE's creation in 1977 when our efforts to find technology solutions to our energy problems were located in many different agencies. Most people would agree that we should focus and leverage our current research.

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